As Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a changin’.” In the business world, those changes have meant an explosion in Cloud software adoption, integrated systems, automation, AI, and predictive intelligence. These digital tools are helping companies rapidly accelerate operations and tend to customers faster than ever. But with all our software efficiencies, are we losing the personal skills that build lasting relationships?

Business software like CRM, integrated phone systems, and social media are fantastic for time saving, but we need to remember that what comes AFTER those touchpoints is just as important for building great customer experiences. Software and soft skills must go hand-in-hand, especially when research has shown that the #1 priority for talent development in 2018 was training for soft skills.

So, what exactly is a soft skill? Which soft skills are in-demand? How can we build a company culture that encourages soft skills? Let’s examine how software and soft skills can unite to build better customer experiences.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Hard skills are measurable, teachable abilities that are easy to quantify. For example, a degree in Public Relations is a hard skill. Knowing how to code HTML is a hard skill. These are usually the types of skills we list on our resumes to show our experience and the breadth of our abilities. By comparison, soft skills are more abstract. Soft skills are subjective and are more akin to emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication abilities. Problem solving, active listening, and adapting to change are all examples of soft skills.

soft skills
Here's an example of what not to do to display soft skills. Checking your phone while a customer is speaking inhibits your active listening and shows disinterest in what's being said.

However abstract they may be, soft skills are a must for business success; and they’re in-demand from employers in every industry. A recent survey by the Stanford Research Institute International and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation found that Fortune 500 CEOS believe 75% of long-term job success depends on soft skills and only 25% depends on technical skills. Employers like these are starting to pay attention to the power of soft skills.

Hiring managers are particularly focused on soft skill development, with 58% believing a lack of soft skills in their workplaces is limiting productivity. Lucky for us, skills like emotional intelligence and communication can be matured with the proper guidance.

In-Demand Soft Skills

A few years back, LinkedIn analyzed its data for in-demand soft skills  and found the most sought-after skills among employers were:

  • Communication – Well this isn’t vague at all... Communication can mean a lot of things. In the world of soft skills, though, communication refers to behaviors like active listening, nonverbal skills, patience, and business-appropriate language. Communicating is about more than how you speak. It’s also about how you listen and react.
  • Organization – Whether or not our attention spans are getting shorter is up for debate, but in the very least, we as a society are multi-tasking more than ever before. That’s why solid organizational skills are so critical.
  • Teamwork – This one seems obvious, but without emotionally intelligent individuals, teamwork can quickly unravel. The ability to effectively brainstorm and execute a vision together circles back to hiring managers’ concerns about productivity. You can’t be productive without teamwork!
  • Punctuality –Show up to a client meeting 30 minutes late and you’ll leave a very poor impression behind. Even being a few minutes late to an online meeting can send the wrong message. Punctuality shows you respect the other person’s time and you value communication with them.
  • Critical Thinking – Critical thinking helps us problem solve on our feet and make educated choices. Management teams who know they have competent critical thinkers will feel a lot more comfortable letting those employees run free. It requires less hands-on engagement from the managers who can use that extra time to focus on bigger tasks.
  • Social Skills – Whether you’re at a conference, meeting a new client, or simply touching base with a customer, adequate social skills are the cornerstone of building relationships. Social skills extend to etiquette, too. Are you doing international business? Do you understand the subtleties of how the other party conducts business?
  • Creativity – Another no-brainer soft skill, creativity is always a desirable trait for an employee. We are all expected to work within certain parameters at our jobs (solutions offerings, budgets, contract limitations, etc.), and when it comes to positive customer experiences, we must sometimes get creative with problem resolution to stay within those boundaries and still satisfy the customer.
  • Interpersonal Communication – Interpersonal communication can be both verbal and non-verbal. It’s how we exchange feelings, information, and meanings during face-to-face communication. Individuals with more empathy tend to be better with interpersonal communication.
  • Adaptability – How does that phrase go? Adapt or die? The ability to adjust to changing client needs, changing internal expectations, and unexpected events makes any employee an asset. Especially if you work at a startup or high-growth environment, being ready and willing for change is essential.  
  • Friendliness – Be nice. More importantly, be genuine. People are smart, and if they think you’re being phony, your professional relationship will certainly dwindle.

Although they didn’t make LinkedIn’s list, empathy and integrity are also fundamental. To build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships, employees must be able to listen effectively and adapt their communication for the person or people with whom they are interacting, whether it’s a fellow employee or a customer. Empathy is a powerful ally for building trust, credibility, and connection.

While most employers recognize the importance of soft skills, many aren’t sure how to nurture those skills for productivity and customer interactions. What can we do to build better soft skills? How will those added skills contribute to a great customer experience?

Bridging the Gap Between Software & Soft Skills

The bridge between software and soft skills is collaboration. The successful marriage of the two requires a balance: using the software to optimize and streamline customer experiences and using the soft skills to expand on those experiences and build lasting value.  Here are a few tips for developing soft skills in your employees:

  1. Build soft skills into your processes and culture. Maybe your customer service process takes place mostly through email. Which soft skills need to be in play during that process? Would a personal follow-up call make sense? Start assessing processes to discover where software and soft skills can better intersect.
  2. Provide practice opportunities before getting in front of the customer. Want to beef up an employee’s ability to connect to and engage with customers? Have them lead a meeting to practice public speaking, active listening, and other desired soft skills in a safe environment. You’ll boost their confidence in their soft skills and prepare them to think dynamically during the real interaction.
  3. Elect mentors. As you integrate more soft skills focus into your company culture, the existing teams will adapt. Choose an employee with solid soft skills to mentor new employees and demonstrate through his/her own actions the behaviors engrained in the rest of the team.

If you want to go “hard core” on soft skills, do a training needs analysis first so you understand which soft skills your teams need to work on. Then, establish a training program and follow it by putting the employees in situations where they can practice and apply those new skills.

For new employees, consider establishing a soft skills assessment, and make your desired soft skills clear during the interview process. When I was hired at TAI, I had to take a personality test that measured my compatibility with existing team members (teamwork), my communication skills (interpersonal and empathy), and my conflict styles (adaptability, critical thinking, etc.). I personally found it very interesting to learn those things about myself. Some of my soft skill weaknesses were things I would never have otherwise realized.

If a test/assessment is too formal for you, build in soft skill goals as part of performance reviews. Ask employees to acknowledge a soft skill they’d like to improve on and make it a goal to build that skill by the next review.

A great customer experience requires more than automated responses and fast output. Behavioral adaptations, emotional cognizance, and proactive problem solving can take a customer experience from good to great by building meaningful connections. Without meaningful connections, we risk losing repeat business, positive recommendations, and in some cases even friendships with our best customers. Remember, hard skills can change, but soft skills are evergreen for strong customer and coworker relations.

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